Bottom line: In 2020 and beyond, PR campaigns around high-profile legal disputes are likely to feature aggressive public statements, creative uses of technology, and defendants playing offense

One of the largest and most profitable law firms in the world is currently embroiled in a high-profile legal dispute with one of its female law partners.

Interestingly, the aggressive public relations campaigns that both sides are employing in the dispute are indicative of five trends for 2020 (and beyond) that I see in litigation communications and litigation public relations campaigns surrounding high-profile legal disputes.

If you follow what’s going on in the legal industry, you surely are aware of the legal dispute DLA Piper finds itself in with a female law partner at the firm, Vanina Guerrero.

Ms. Guerrero alleges that a now-former male partner at the firm, Louis Lehot, sexually harassed her and assaulted her, and retaliated against her when she rebuffed his advances. Ms. Guerrero also alleges that DLA Piper failed to investigate and take her allegations seriously because Mr. Lehot was a rainmaker.

(The American Bar Association Journal has an informative rundown of the facts of the dispute.)

This is an unusually high-profile legal dispute because the parties involved are taking uncommonly aggressive stances with their public relations efforts and their attempts to win over the Court of Public Opinion before the court proceedings get underway.

(The PR efforts here are so uncommon that two prominent legal publications, Law360 and The American Lawyer, covered the PR strategies and tactics being employed. Both outlets kindly included my thoughts in their respective articles.)

What’s most notable about DLA Piper’s dispute with Ms. Guerrero is that the public relations strategies and tactics the parties are using are indicative of five trends for 2020 (and beyond) that I see in litigation communications and litigation public relations campaigns surrounding high-profile legal disputes.

Trend 1: Heated public statements

Public statements regarding high-profile litigation are getting more heated and less civil than they were previously.

That is due to what’s going on in Washington, D.C., and the overall culture and tenor of politics and political statements these days.

The same kind of cutting and harsh statements that you usually see in the political realm are moving to high-profile legal disputes.

The public is now more conditioned to expect these kinds of statements and this kind of language from parties involved in some kind of dispute-legal or otherwise.

With this trend, no matter what side of the case an attorney or client is on, they’ll need to know that (A) this kind of language could be coming from the other side, and (B) the public seems a bit more willing to embrace the tone of this language than they might have before.

Trend 2: Defendants playing offense

Defendants like DLA Piper in its dispute are taking a more aggressive approach in the Court of Public Opinion and attempting to play offense. In doing so, defendants are trying to wrestle away control of “the narrative” and the news cycle from plaintiffs.

When defendants go on the offensive, plaintiffs attorneys and their clients have to play defense. This is not something the vast majority of plaintiffs attorneys and their clients are comfortable with. This is understandable-they are used to playing offense in their cases.

Trend 3: Non-public documents are being made public.

In high-profile litigation, I’m seeing documents that previously were not made public, such as EEOC complaints and correspondence, being made public.

These documents aren’t confidential and there doesn’t seem to be any penalty for proactively making them public. But still, it is rare to see EEOC-related documents being made public.

And yet, in DLA Piper’s dispute, we see its attorneys from Gibson Dunn & Crutcher as well as Ms. Guerrero’s attorneys sending their non-public correspondence with the EEOC to media outlets.

Trend 4: Creative uses of technology

Parties involved in high-profile legal disputes are realizing that the technology they use for marketing, such as blogs, websites, and social media can be used as tools with which to engage the Court of Public Opinion.

In her dispute with DLA Piper, Ms. Guerrero’s attorneys used Medium (the very service you are reading this blog post on) to post open letters and with which to address the public more broadly and more directly.

Historically, the only way to reach the public when attempting to engage the Court of Public Opinion was through traditional media outlets.

But with blogs, websites, social media, and the like, parties to a legal dispute can now address the public directly. And, because doing so cuts out media outlets serving as middlemen, the parties’ messages will not face the possibility of being filtered by a reporter who edits down a quote or misunderstands some detail.

And of course, using this technology is often dirt cheap, if not free.

Trend 5: Attacking accusers

In sexual harassment and sexual assault cases, or really, any legal dispute where there are allegations of sexual misconduct, I’m seeing more people who are accused of that misconduct going on the offensive and attacking the credibility of the accuser and other aspects of the accuser, including (almost always) her story

This is in stark contrast to just a few short years ago when the #MeToo movement was at peak momentum. Back then, it was unthinkable that someone who was accused of sexual misconduct would fight back in a way that sought to undermine their accuser’s claims.

But recently, and as is the case with DLA Piper and Mr. Lehot, we are seeing those accused of wrongdoing in this context fighting back.

They are pushing back against their accusers’ allegations, making it clear that they’re not going to just sit on their hands and let the accusers control the narrative in their disputes. This includes attacking the credibility of their accusers.

Moving forward

While I’ve framed this post as discussing trends for 2020, I don’t see these five trends going away anytime soon. These trends are going to have staying power for the next decade.

As more and more parties in high-profile legal disputes employ the strategies and tactics I’ve discussed above into the litigation communications/litigation public relations campaigns they are executing alongside those disputes, these trends will become baked into every such campaign.

Eventually, they will seem like second nature.

Bottom line: In 2020 and beyond, PR campaigns around high-profile legal disputes are likely to feature aggressive public statements, creative uses of technology, and defendants playing offense.

Wayne Pollock is the founder and managing attorney of Copo Strategies in Philadelphia, a national legal services and communications firm exclusively serving attorneys and their clients. Copo Strategies helps attorneys (i) engage the Court of Public Opinion regarding their clients’ active legal disputes, and (ii) engage their referral sources and prospective clients regarding their firms and practices. Wayne was recently named by a leading legal industry publication to its inaugural list of Pennsylvania Legal Trailblazers. Contact him at waynepollock@copostrategies.com or 215–454–2180.